Dear Catrina

Catrina Edit 2

 

Dear Calavera Catrina,

I remember meeting you for the first time in an art store on the Puerto Vallarta Malecón. You were there in the hundreds, small and large, garish and elegant–and always possessed of a haughty stare and a set of ivories that would do justice to a shark.

I’d met you before, of course, but never understood that in-person encounters with individual representatives of your archetype pale next to your cumulative effect on society.

You are easy to recognize, and you demand that recognition. Your clothes and demeanor always mark you as one who has access to wealth and power beyond the peons you expect to bend to your will. You’ve always been a dilettante, dabbling in public affairs with little expertise or experience to guide you. You’ve also been absolutely sincere, a true believer in the appropriateness of turning over public institutions to the private sector for exploitation. After all, it’s usually your friends and family members doing the exploiting.

Campbell Brown is but the latest acolyte in your stable, and I’d say she emulates your appearance, attitude and intellectual depth with precision. Someone might have warned Campbell that attacks on teacher rights to due process ought not to be paired with statements like “I do think there should be equality in money.” After all, it will cost a lot of public dollars to correct the effects of unequal funding of public schools, if that’s what she truly intends. I rather think that she’d prefer to withdraw public funds from wealthier districts than support poorer communities…it’s a “Catrina-like” solution to the situation she created with her off-the-cuff remark on the Colbert Report. I wonder if her husband and former investment banker, Dan Senor, would approve? After all, he managed to help us lose nine billion dollars of hard-earned U.S. taxpayer cash to fraud and theft in Iraq during his time working with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Michelle Rhee exemplifies your attributes as well, Catrina. It’s apparent that she has worn out her welcome, but her crusading efforts to destroy unions, establish charter schools, and whip students into shape with standardized testing are based on absolute conviction of the righteousness of her cause. She will never view herself as anything but a warrior against forces of darkness…even though her denial of the reality that poverty is a fundamental cause for academic difficulty has been repeated time and time again. Catrina, you know that Michelle has attached herself to Sacramento Mayor (and former NBA player) Kevin Johnson; power and money attract your ilk like sugar water attracts hummingbirds. I expect Michelle will flutter in and out of educational politics for the foreseeable future.

But even Michelle can’t outdo Eva Moskowitz when it comes to out and out fabrications. Eva is the face of “Success Academy,” the ironic name for her chain of academically un-successful charter schools. Her “Catrinaisms” reach so far beyond the truth that fact-checkers can get whiplash just listening to her. The successes her academies have achieved have been almost entirely financial…she’s been able to secure funding for her schools from private hedge funds in addition to the public dollars she collects. Still, her students perform no better than those in poorer public schools.

But gender is no barrier to you, Catrina. Your attention to personal grooming and manifestations of power are also evidenced in the male personas you inhabit. Peter Brabeck, for instance, is a magnificent specimen. Only recently, Peter managed to turn thousands of years of social obligation on its ear by denying the right of humans to free access to water. Why, if we accept that the basis of life is open to exploitation by corporate enterprise, what argument can be made for any common good to remain in the public sphere? Education becomes another endeavor subject to the laws of supply and demand, for the only ethical principle a corporate leader is bound to follow is, “…to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.

Individually, Catrina, your minions are easier to dismiss than the damage they collectively inflict on society. Catrina, you are not separable from death, for death is what you bring wherever you go. You have killed the hopes of generations of poor Mexican peasants, the dreams of poor black and white sharecroppers, the opportunities of the late middle class.

Catrina, your passion for the causes you promote is founded on a level of understanding as superficial as your smile. I remind myself that your smile is what most see last, just before your shark-like maw tears apart the tender fabric of societal protections necessary to meaningful democracy.

Will I live to see your demise, Catrina? Unlikely. You’re a slippery customer–attacking public education today, but shifting to other targets as the public becomes aware of your deceptive tactics.

No, Catrina, you’ll be with us in one shape or another…and your smiling countenance, thirst for power and impeccable taste will mark you for those with eyes to see.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Who’s Selling You Shovels?

Pearson Snake Oil

In 1848, Sam Brannan ran up and down the streets of San Francisco yelling, ”Gold! There’s gold in the American River!” Brannan had no intention to dig for gold himself, of course. Just before he made the announcement, he had purchased every pickaxe, shovel and pan available in Northern California. He knew that the people who came to California to dig for gold were suckers; a few might find wealth, but most would simply line his pockets.

Today, politicians, state education officials, district superintendents and school board members are suckers in the new “gold rush.”

In the “Race to the Top,” we have lined the pockets of gurus, computer hucksters, and corporate consultants galore—and the further we go, the higher the price tag gets. In the search for “gold,” we spend plenty of it.

So who’s our Sam Brannan? Well, Pearson Publishing has applied for the position, and appears to be the front-runner. But watch out, because these guys are famous for sloppy in-house “research” to support their money-making initiatives.

Take, for example, Cogmed, a “brain-training” system Pearson claims will “effectively change the way the brain functions to perform at its maximum capacity.” According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it’s all bunk. Dr. Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence says, “Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.”

Pearson also markets “SIOP” (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) as a “scientifically based” program for ELL students. The Institute of Education Sciences found that No studies of … (SIOP) … meet … evidence standards.” Another study also found major deficiencies, stating “Because of the widespread use of the SIOP and its far-reaching advertising, published research supporting the SIOP should be made of sterner stuff.”

The Common Core and PARCC tests are baloney, too. There is no evidence that the CCSS “standards” positively affect learning or that performing well (or poorly) on these tests is any indication of future performance in college or career—and test results certainly have no relevance to becoming a productive member of our society. All evidence indicates that Pearson is making plenty of money, however.

Sam Brannan was a heartless capitalist, but at least his picks and shovels did the job. The guys at Pearson who have concocted the Kommon Kore Swizzle Quizzes can’t even claim that. They’re flogging bogus products, a pattern of behavior that seems well established.

Why have we allowed ourselves to be suckered? Several obvious factors include:

  • A sincere, but misguided desire to “guarantee” that all students make lockstep progress, despite poverty or other intervening variables.
  • Political and financial pressure—Arne Duncan demands that states accept the CCSS and use test scores to evaluate teachers…or face restricted use of federal funds for education.
  • Unwitting and unwarranted trust in companies that sell products to assist already overworked educators.

In the end, the only people who find gold in education today are companies like Pearson, whose main objective is a higher profit margin, not the development of young citizens for active participation in a democracy. They are snake oil salesmen of the lowest variety. They cynically peddle their products with false promises of better learning which is “scientifically based,” leading school districts to expend limited funds on unnecessary and unhelpful items. Those expenses rob students themselves of funds that might better be spent on decreased class size and an expanded, more personal curriculum.

So what does one teacher do?

You can start at your own staff meetings by forcing public acknowledgment of the stark realities of Testing über Alles:

  • Ask your administrators if the tests you are required to give have been tested for reliability and validity—and to supply the research on which that determination is based. If they can’t, assume it doesn’t exist.
  • Ask them for specific examples of “instructional decisions” that the tests will influence for the students you have at present. I’ll bet the results won’t be available until the little darlings have flown your coop.
  • Ask them how much money is spent per pupil on each test…and if they’d prefer to spend the money on some other frippery…like maybe additional staff?
  • Ask administrators for evidence that test scores actually reflect differences in classroom learning, and not income level or other intervening variable. All evidence is to the contrary.
  • Let members of your community know that it is legal to opt-out of standardized testing—and ask your administration for specific district guidelines parents should follow to do so. Advocate that those guidelines be published and distributed to parents along with all other information about standardized testing.
  • Then, when you are accused of being “unprofessional” because you are forcefully challenging decisions made by district or state officials above your pay grade, ask them how it can be unprofessional to expect that educational decisions be based on “real science” that shows a benefit to both teacher and student rather than the wallets of Pearson investors?

The moral of the story is that since we aren’t in the gold digging business, we don’t need to buy shovels from anyone.

And if you just can’t accept that, at least don’t buy your shovels from companies like Pearson, whose only goal is gold by any means necessary.